It’s healthy, even natural, for Americans to feel populist resentment against elites that base their status on inherited wealth and family connections. But it’s toxic, misguided and profoundly stupid to focus public hostility on leaders who achieved their positions through education, diligence and ability.
Recent sniping between Sarah Palin and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer highlights the crucial distinction between rebellious attitudes that attack unfairly arrogated power and privilege and a trendy neo-populism that attacks brains.
When Krauthammer dared to suggest that the former Alaska governor looked less than “presidential” while shooting caribou with Kate Goselin on her hit TLC reality show, Palin told Bill O’Reilly: “Well, bless his heart, he’s probably used to those in the political beltway who perhaps aren’t out there workin’, but they’re talkin’ and they’re meeting people, and they’re out there doin’ their ‘strategery,’ whereas I’m workin’ and havin’ a great time doin’ it.”
The irony in this attack involves the fact that Governor Palin is currently “workin’” in precisely the same way Charles Krauthammer does—by writing and making media appearances. The key difference is that Palin earns many times Krauthammer’s income by focusing on her own ebullient personality rather than policy and ideas.
Yes, Krauthammer would have to plead guilty to what Palin would deride as “high-falutin’” educational credentials: he studied at Oxford and earned his MD at Harvard Medical School. But in what sense does this paraplegic, Canadian-raised son of struggling Eastern European immigrants qualify as representative of some perceived establishment that excludes a former governor, Vice Presidential nominee, certified TV star and number-one-bestselling author? Only in terms of intellectuality, not wealth or influence or celebrity status, could a Krauthammer qualify as more “elitist” than a Palin.
Former White House speechwriter David Frum (another Canadian-born US citizen with Ivy League credentials) makes the interesting point that “American populism has almost always concentrated its anger against the educated rather than the wealthy.” He classifies contemporary politics as “a class struggle between those with more education than money against those with more money than education.”
Unfortunately, this sort of battle over brains undermines the most potent and valuable thrust of traditional populism: the opposition to an arrogant, hereditary establishment that closes off access to money and power to even the most gifted products of ordinary American families.
Consider the often-expressed (and misguided) discomfort over the fact that every one of the nine current justices of the U.S. Supreme Court holds degrees from either Yale or Harvard. Far from indicating the domination of our most powerful legal institution by members of an American aristocracy, the background of the reigning justices demonstrates the effective operation of an educational meritocracy. Not one of the jurists on the high court (with its six Catholics and three Jews) arose from the old-line, blue-blood, WASP establishment; two of them (Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor) grew up in abject poverty, while most of the others came from modest circumstances and immigrant families. They attended Yale and Harvard not through family connections (a charge that could accurately be lodged against presidential candidates Al Gore, John Kerry and George W. Bush) but due to academic excellence and scholarship aid.
No one can question the reality that the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions opened up to “unconventional” but able applicants in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s (prominently including Barack Obama), and reserved far fewer spaces to legacy students and prep school products. This means that populist rage focused on Ivy League degrees now amounts to resentment of educational achievement, or even intelligence, rather than inherited privilege. In that context, Sarah Palin’s well-advertised battle against various elites has more to do with her carefully-constructed and distinctive “Going Rogue” persona than with her position as a self-annointed outsider, her religious faith, or educational background.
No one, for instance, questions the presidential qualifications of Mike Huckabee – despite the fact that the former pastor’s Evangelical Christian commitment is every bit as fervently outspoken as Palin’s, and his undergraduate degree (from Ouachita Bible University) is no more prestigious than Palin’s communications BA from the University of Idaho. Huckabee, however, served 10 years as Governor of his state (and three prior years of Lieutenant Governor) and in his eight books, weekly TV broadcasts on Fox News and innumerable public debates he demonstrates a mastery of public issues and political ideas that impresses even those who disagree with him.
Huckabee’s example indicates that the populist instinct is correct in disregarding the idea that a Yale or Harvard education is a necessary pre-requisite for national leadership, but it goes wrong if it suggests that blue chip academic credential should count as a disqualification of any kind.
Most Americans can agree that elitism that favors well-born, powerfully connected individuals counts as hateful and undemocratic. But an elitism that favors those who are smart, capable and impressively trained is reasonable and, to some extent, inevitable.